Strange Fruit PR a bitter lesson for all PR firms

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Author’s Note: PR firms are familiar with the vagaries of popular media – both traditional media and the unfiltered voices of the masses expressed through social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook. We play in that space, use it to promote our customers and pride ourselves on being savvy about managing brand reputations in a digital world. But what happens when it all backfires and the PR firm suddenly finds itself at the center of a controversy? This is the story of one firm that got it wrong, badly wrong, by showing poor judgment and evoking distasteful memories of our country’s past (and present) racism. What also follows are some of the lessons we can take away from the controversy.

A PR firm in my hometown of Austin came under fire over the past week in social media because its name was perceived as racially insensitive at a time when racial tensions are at new highs across America.

The firm, which was called Strange Fruit PR, shared the same name as a poem written in the 1930s and made famous by Billie Holiday about an epidemic of racially motivated lynchings in the Deep South. The song specifically referred to the brutalized bodies of black men and women left to swing after lynchings – like “strange fruit” in a tree.

Much like many controversies in the era of social media, this one went viral in a very short period of time, stoked in no small part by mounting racial tension in the aftermath of Ferguson and other cases of lethal use of force by police against young black men (including a 12 year old boy in Cleveland shot holding an “airsoft” gun).

What started in Twitter:

Tweet 1:

Tweet 2:

Got covered in: USA Today, Washington Post and local Austin pubs like Austin American-Statesman, Culturemap Austin and Austin Business Journal.

And resulted in a suspension of the company’s website and all social media accounts, a name change, a formal apology and even the firm’s customers getting angry tweets about why they hired a PR firm with such a racially-provocative name.

It all happened in less than a week’s time. Can you believe it? The company was just doing its usual PR thing, promoting its customers to the media, when all of a sudden – wham! – it became the focus of a media firestorm. That’s the power of social media working in conjunction with mainstream media in a 24/7 news cycle.

It’s a valuable lesson for PR firms that no company is immune to controversy – whether of its own making or related hot news trends that come out of nowhere.

In the case of Strange Fruit PR, it was both. The lessons I am seeing in this unfortunate episode are many; many are negative, but some are positive.

What’s in a name: Strange Fruit PR sounds kind of cool, interesting, probably even memorable – assuming, that is, you don’t make the connection to the Billie Holiday song and you ignore the Deep South’s post Civil War history and its penchant for lynch mob justice. It turns out that the founders of Strange Fruit knew about the song; there’s even a rumor on Twitter that it wasn’t the first time they were called out about the name. For starters, the founders should not have picked the name given its racial overtones, regardless of how catchy it sounded. More importantly, they should have changed it at the first sign of controversy. As it stands, they were complacent, undoubtedly tone-deaf and more than a little insensitive. They paid the ultimate price for that hubris.

Brand monitoring: monitoring your brand on social media is no longer an option. It has to be done 24/7/365 with a monitoring tool that alerts you every time your brand is mentioned. Some of the early tweets on this particular controversy happened late at night and in the wee hours of the morning. Let’s face it, for smaller PR firms it’s not practical to monitor and respond to social media mentions 24 hours a day. It’s just going to be a challenge in this chaotic, tweet-happy world we live in.

Actions speak louder than words: here we can’t be sure how well the founders of Strange Fruit performed; their Twitter profile was eventually deleted. It was reported, however, that they tried to respond to the criticism and explain why they chose the name – for non-racial reason, obviously. That approach only served to fuel the controversy. Instead of taking immediate ownership of the mistake, the firm’s immediate reaction was to defend itself, even though it knew it was in an indefensible situation given the climate of fiery emotions tied to racial inequality. The firm did, however, commit to changing its name after taking down its website. More importantly, it acted on that promise. Effective December 9th, Perennial Public Relations became the firm’s new name, as announced in the Austin Business Journal.

Reaction time: here the firm’s founders made up some ground by cancelling all of their social media brand assets and taking the company’s website offline. It stemmed the bleeding by showing the world they were not ignoring the self-inflicted crisis. Any crisis requires swift and decisive action. It sets the tone for how a company handles controversy and is an important first step toward earning back the trust it lost.

Own the crisis: here, frankly, the firm’s founders ultimately did a respectable job. They took down all of the online branding related to its controversial name, issued a statement that it was sorry for the racially-insensitive name and promised that it would change the name of its firm within a few days.

Media friends: when you’re on top of your game you have all the friends in the world. The moment you step into the abyss of controversy you can’t buy a friend. The media are always quick to pounce on controversy because, well, that’s what gets eyeballs to the publication and sells ads. The trick is to find a media outlet that will give you a “fair shake” and be a venue for an apology and potential come-back story. Strange Fruit chose the Austin American-Statesman, a publication in its own backyard and one with which they have presumably developed a long working relationship.

Olive branch: another step in managing a crisis is to find authentic, meaningful ways to “do the right thing” against the aggrieved party. The NFL, in the wake of the Ray Rice controversy (among others it’s been dealing with), decided to donate millions of dollars and promotional assistance to three organizations dealing with domestic violence, including one right here in Austin. And who hasn’t seen the #NoMore ads featuring well-known NFL players running on ESPN and other channels? I’m not saying the firm’s founders need to donation millions, or even thousands, of dollars to a racism awareness non-profit – although that would be nice if they could. The fact is many small PR firms aren’t cash rich like the NFL. But what we are good at is amplifying the message of organizations through our contacts in the media and value-added advice on what messages stand a better chance of getting noticed in a crowded marketplace of ideas. Next step for the firm founders? Reach out and partner with a nonprofit, and stay committed. Your reputation and the future of your firm depend upon it.

Cooler heads: don’t panic. On second thought, yes, some panic is needed, and even healthy. After all, we’re talking about survival, the life-and-death of all your hard work and passion. Get cooler heads involved in your controversy. ASAP. Perhaps Strange Fruit’s founders consulted with a crisis communications specialist; perhaps they called a friend they see from time to time at PRSA meetings or met at a PR Daily conference. In a controversy, when we are the object of scorn, derision and inflamed media scrutiny, it is more than a challenge to think clearly; having an objective sounding board goes a long way toward validating your proposed actions.

Enough of my ramblings. What are your ideas for how to manage a crisis visited upon a PR firm? Did the Strange Fruit founders do a good job despite their obvious faults? What more should they do to move forward and get the crisis behind them, which by the way continues to haunt them. Just read the latest take in The Root.

About Dave Manzer: Dave Manzer founded an Austin tech PR agency for startups and emerging-growth businesses in 2009. Dave Manzer specializes in highly integrated PR & marketing strategies that help companies in technology, healthcare and professional services reach their goals in brand awareness and revenue growth. To contact Dave directly about the PR over Coffee blog, please email him at dave(@)davemanzer.com.

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